To Infinity and Beyond!

“Museums are not just storage places.”

-Susan Wertheim of the National Gallery of Art

Museums can be many things but their first priority is to the visitor. Families, millennials, children, adults, each museum has a visitor base that they want to appeal the most to.

This was shown to us by Ann Caspari, Early Childhood Education Specialist at the National Air and Space Museum. Since it is mostly families that visit the museum, Ann and her team have developed story time programs that specially focus on the Pre-K through 2nd graders that try to bring the “people story” behind the objects to light. From my personal experience designing programming, this is probably the hardest age group to design well-rounded, educational and interactive programming for because most history deals with hard topics that can be uncomfortable to discuss with children under a certain age, or that feel too large to be brought to the learning level of one so young.

IMG_1590The story that Ann shared with us, that they use in their “Flights of Fancy Storytime” programs, talked about Bessie Coleman, an African American woman who had to overcome many challenges to reach her dream of flying. Overcoming obstacles and learning to dream are two big storylines that I have noticed in books about famous Americans for this young age group and this story presented it in a way that was accessible and fun for children without getting too deep into ideas like racism and sexism, that were clearly present. I found it interesting that Ann said that she did a little editing of the story, to cut out a part of the book where Bessie’s death was discussed, but that in the long run the editing wasn’t out of disrespect to the author but rather respect to the visitor– most parents don’t expect an outing at an Air and Space museum to turn into a conversation about death, and Ann recognized that that one page in the book would overwhelm any other lesson that she was trying to get across.

Ann had some great pointers that I will certainly be incorporating into my own program design: use props, use movement, create a way to think about the people in the story as characters that develop, use object based learning to point out actual artifacts that accent the story, and to follow the story with something more hands-on such as a craft or free play. Making sure that kids in Pre-K through 2nd grade can associate themselves with people in the past is a critical part to helping them understand that history is bigger then just “a long time ago” and that they can interact with it in a tangible way can lead to both in the moment, and long-term, learning and interest.

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The 5-W’s (and one H)

All through elementary school we are taught that the “5-W’s” (Who, What, Where, When, Why) and one “H” (How) are the words you use to create questions that can start conversations, and help you learn about the world around you. This simplistic idea is taken to a whole new level in Object Based Learning… just asking 10 questions about an object, even an everyday one such as your phone, can bring a bigger meaning to the discussion and to the object itself.

  •  What can you see?
  • How do you describe it?
  • Are there things you can’t see?
  • What goes into making it?
  • Who is making/using it?
  • What is it made of?
  • How was it made?
  • What is the history?
  • Are there issues? Negative effects?
  • What is the effect on society?

I feel that these straight forward questions are a universal tool in the museum professional’s tool kit– especially that of a museum educator. In many ways, this type of exercise can be adapted to fit with almost any audience or interpretive situation– school children learning about the odd objects of Victorian culture, adults to use as an entry way into harder conversations, the casual visitor being encouraged to ask themselves these types of questions when looking at an exhibition…. the possibilities are endless.

The possibility that I am most excited about is to use it as a teaching tool for instructors and guides on the back-end of the public presentation. Working at a small museum, I have a staff of 10 very part time school/scout program instructors and a handful of volunteer tour guides under my position. While these are all wonderful people, I continually run into the problem that they have all been around the museum “forever” and are very adverse to changing they way that the site is interpreted. Holding a session with them where we create an OBL conversation– much like we did in class– would be a fun, engaging way to show, rather then tell (as Tim Wendel stressed) how creating a stronger interpretation plan can be a much more interesting way to engage the visitor.

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Image for Uniform cap owned by Pullman Porter Robert Thomas

Pullman Porter Cap, ca. 1920. Found in the NMAAHC exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968” on view on Concourse 2, C2053.

The object in the collection of the National Museum of African American History that I found most interesting was this uniform cap of Pullman Porter Robert Thomas. Being from the Chicago area, I have heard much about about the Pullman Palace Car Company and even visited the factory building and some of the row houses in the Pullman neighborhood, all of which are still standing, currently being lived in, and have recently been named a National Historic Landmark District site.

While the company itself is a fascinating subject in itself, the porters add an extra layer of uniqueness to the story, as represented by this man’s cap. All that I started out knowing about the porters was from a small section in a permanent exhibit at the Chicago History Museum entitled “Facing Freedom in America,” which only touched on the elements that went into making the African American experience in the Pullman company significant– basically it said that Pullman created these jobs as part of a much larger business model, which allowed him to hire newly freed slaves (as cheap labor) and create an experience around them in a way that made the white middle class feel like they were being treated as the upper class.

It turns out the story is much larger then that. The uniform was a mark of their service to the company, and to the illusion that the men in them were the stereotypical servant class. According to historian Greg LeRoy, “A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels. The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel – the same as a light switch or a fan switch.”

In spite of this, a Pullman porter was still the largest employer of African Americans in the United States, and was a job that every African American man aspired to for both the level of status that it gave the, the pay level, and the ability to travel. For these reasons, the job is credited with creating a middle class for the African American community. The porters are also credited with being some of the first steps in the Civil Rights Movement not only because of their unionization movement in the 1920’s–which was practically unheard of– but also because of what some of their members did. It was a former Pullman porter, E. D. Nixon, who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and was a critical figure in the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
While I couldn’t find much information specifically about Robert Thomas, the man who wore this hat, I’m sure that he had a similar experience to what his fellow porters experienced in the 1920’s and was part of that founding unionization.

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This is my first attempt at a blog and a YouTube video, so I hope this all works out the way it is supposed to 🙂 Only one week left to go before we get to DC!

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